Sonic & All-Stars Racing: Transformed somehow manages to be the best and worst racing game I've ever played. Like its predecessor, it is a potential Mario Kart-killer that combines exciting, mindless fun with the need for precision and mastery. It includes everything you'd expect out of a kart racer: a colourful cast, fun power-ups, constant drifting, and the inclusion of boost panels. While Transformed doesn't bring too many new features to the table, it is one of the most innovative racers to come out in a while.
Note: I did not play the original game, Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing, so certain aspects I may claim as “new” or “innovative” may have already existed beforehand.
The main attraction of Transformed is its World Tour mode, offering a series of races that unlock tracks and racers. Aside from multiplayer, World Tour is really the only motivating game mode, as it is the most diverse and rewarding. This is different than your typical career mode as you can play pretty much any mode with your friends in split-screen. I will admit, I found it difficult to care about the other game modes as World Tour was the most expansive and interesting of them all.
The game offers many typical race modes that we've seen before: Grand Prix tournaments, drift challenges, time trials, et cetera. However, this game surprised me in that it actually contains some fresh ideas for game modes. “Traffic Attack,” for example, has the player racing through – you guessed it – traffic, in order to defeat “waves” by driving to the front of a group of cars. These challenges start with pedestrians that simply drive straight, before introducing drunk drivers with angled routes and police officers which try to sandwich you from the front and behind. “Pursuit” is a battle with a tank that leads you on the track as it fires varying defensive weapons at you. All this while you pick up ammunition, hoping that you whittle its health down before your own car ends up wrecked.
Alongside these are some less creative – but still fun – modes that have probably been seen before. An example of this is “Battle Race” which plays like a regular race, except for the fact that racers can only take three hits before being destroyed. There is also a “Capture the Chao” mode which has the players driving around an arena, grabbing a Chao balloon and heading to a drop point without losing it to the competition.
The cast contains 24 racers (excluding DLC and the Xbox and Wii's avatar exclusives) who mostly hail from various Sega franchises. Each character plays differently, but their stats can be tuned when they level up from repeated use. However, the game is missing at least five characters from its predecessor – which is strange, considering that the game includes non-fictional NASCAR driver, Danica Patrick. The addition of Wreck-It Ralph is a welcome one, however, as the cast does not include many large, heavy characters like the Mario Kart series does – and chances are, you won't even get to see Doctor Eggman, but we'll touch on that later. After spending at least twenty hours with the game, I still cannot choose a single “main” character, narrowing it down to about four.
However, I have yet to unlock the last three racers. Why, you ask? Because unlike its predecessor, Transformed requires you to play many races on the game's hardest difficulty in order to unlock them. This doesn't sound too bad, but Expert mode is a horrifying experience, and I will talk about it in the next section...
In terms of race mechanics, Transformed succeeds in creating dynamic, edge-on-your seat action that easily spawns feelings of motivation and satisfaction. The game demands that the player focus on gaining and maintaining speed via boosts, which can be obtained in a variety of ways: drifting, doing air stunts, or from pickups. In order to maintain speed, players will have to learn the tracks well as air stunt opportunities can come as a surprise, and failing a stunt leads to a stunning slow-down that can really set you back.
The new feature that sets Transformed apart from its predecessor is the addition of vehicular transformations for racing in the air and the sea – just think Diddy Kong Racing, except your current “mode” is decided by several “transition circles” that are placed along the track. This is an awesome idea that really adds a whole new dynamic for racing, as it forces the player to master several different driving modes. I preferred the comfortable car mode, had fun with flight, and was rather indifferent about the water racing. I found that in flight mode, my kart racing instincts made me afraid to take different routes. Flight shortcuts are rather unclear because the tracks often show vast empty spaces for the player to explore, but encourage the player to follow certain paths as laid out by several mid-air booster pads. Also, trying new characters is likely to surprise the player with a sudden difference in control when switching to a different track segment. For example, I thought I had mastered using B.D. Joe, but it all changed when I realized his handling was extremely sensitive when in the water, whereas just a minute ago on the ground, I was clearing turns perfectly.
As if the transformation feature didn't make the tracks amazing enough, the game has the most dynamic track designs I have ever seen in a kart racer (and yes, I enjoy playing ModNation Racers). Tracks often alter themselves between laps, sometimes to an extreme extent that takes the racers to a section of the map that they had never even seen before, and often forcing players to travel across familiar territory with a different vehicle mode. For example: in the “Canyon Carnage” level, based on Panzer Dragoon, a dragon will appear on the third lap and destroy a section of the race track, causing the player to enter flight mode and take a completely different route.
I can't say I'm very impressed with this game's pickups. There are several projectiles, traps, boosters and all that which are used to spice up the races. While 70% of them have unique roles, there are only nine pickups (correct me if I'm wrong), and they all seem sort of uninspired and dull. Unlike Mario Kart, the items are not drawn from any Sega titles (as far as I can tell) and just end up feeling bland. That said, they all function well and I would consider them to be very balanced, but their designs just don't stick out to me as anything special. The game's “super” pickup, the All-Star, functions well by giving each racer a unique song and an attack that they can use in this mode – however, actually driving with All-Star simply feels awkward, as it assists your turns and in some respects, takes control from you. The All-Star attacks themselves aren't particularly interesting, most commonly being a close-range radius attack or a projectile that repeats itself. On a positive note, there is no “blue shell” of the game. The closest example would be Swarm, which is very fair as it ends up hitting every racer at some point.
While I am overall impressed with Transformed, there are a few issues with the core gameplay that persist to bother me. As mentioned before, mid-air flip stunts can be performed to give the player a well-needed boost. This can be performed while going from air mode to ground mode. However, this feels inconsistent – while falling from the same general height, my flips have a 50/50 chance of success or failure. This caused me to stop attempting this at all, deciding that the slowdown that is received for a failed stunt was not worth the risk. I've also experienced some particular issues with the tracks themselves. One bothersome example is when I raced on “Adder's Lair” (based on Golden Axe) on the game's highest speed rating, and was often going too fast going off a certain ramp. This ramp leads into the cave-like mouth of a snake – except my high speed caused me to repeatedly smash into the roof of its mouth and land flat on the ground at a full stop.
In the aforementioned World Tour mode, the player competes in races and challenges to obtain stars which are used to unlock more races, and more characters. However, this number eventually reaches a point where the player is required to complete a large amount of races on the game's highest difficulty, Expert. Normally this seems like a decent challenge for a fit reward – however, Expert is extremely brutal. Most solo challenges are impossibly tough, not allowing a split second's worth of a mistake. The Expert AI seems ridiculous – often starting races at an unrealistically high speed while I sit in the back of the line despite having the maximum boost obtainable from the start-up. I am unsure of the game's conditions for obtaining an All-Star power-up, but I am certain that the player would need to be low in the ranks to obtain it. However, I had once lost an Expert race because the second-place CPU behind me used an All-Star just before the finish line and left me in the dust. This will cause the player to spend ridiculous amounts of time trying to clear single races, in order to earn a measly amount of one to three stars – in a game that demands 165 of these stars to unlock the final character. Despite spending countless hours with Transformed, I am still missing the final three racers.
This is where I'm on the fence when it comes to Transformed – I have a few complaints, but the positives balance them out. The tracks are vast, beautiful, colourful, and have yet to put a damper on the frame rate in my experience. The vehicle designs are all unique and impressive, looking great when transforming, taking damage, and boosting. The vehicle sounds are decent, and there's a wide variety of engine noises that change as the cars reach varying boost speeds.
The soundtrack is absolutely amazing! Each song is hand-picked from the stage's respective game of origin. They always fit the mood and they always encourage the game's idea of “gotta go fast!” I've especially fell in love with the game's remix of We Are Burning Rangers.
There are a few flaws here that I need to address, however. The game menus move frustratingly slow – this game's all about moving fast, so why can't the menu do it, too? The character selection screen seems sort of dull and uninspired, which doesn't do this flamboyant game much justice. Also, the characters themselves seem sort of awkward at times. Their racing animations seem great, but as soon as they step out of the vehicle at the end of the race, they just seem to move... unnaturally. I'm not sure if it's just me who sees it, but they don't seem right at these times. And they don't feel vocal enough! Sega had the chance to work with a cast that can speak ten times the amount of lines as the entire Mario Kart cast, yet the characters hardly say anything. I've actually heard Ralph say the same line twice in a row during a race, simply in different tones. Could they really not think of anything more for him to say than “I'm ready to win a medal?”
Speaking of vocal characters, here is my biggest complaint: the announcer. This voice is bearable and maybe even likeable at first, but it did not take long for me to hate him. His voice says everything, literally everything the player chooses on the menu – including the characters names, since they apparently couldn't introduce themselves despite being absolutely awesome. Like the Wipeout HD announcer, he will say the names of the item pick-ups you obtain, but this gets annoying and repetitive very quickly. Some World Tour modes give generic projectiles simply called “ammo,” and you will be hearing this guy repeatedly say “Ammo! Ammo! Ammo!” every fifteen seconds or so. The worst part? He can't be muted. Well technically you can mute him, but it will also mute every other character in the game.
Sonic & All-Stars Racing is an amazing, fresh title that is the perfect racing game for kart-racing lovers that are either sick of Mario Kart's lack of innovation, or simply don't own a Nintendo console. It is, by no means, a perfect game, as it is frought with enough minor issues to tip the scale, and the entire game is run by a disembodied voice that makes me want to rip my eyebrows off. Despite its many flaws, this game's explosive mechanics, tricky race tracks, and immaculate soundtrack set this title apart from any other multi-platform racer. And it's a budget title, at only $40! So go get it!
This is racing. Transformed.